tv Tavis Smiley PBS December 18, 2009 12:00pm-12:30pm EST
[captioning made possible by kcet public television] captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org-- tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonight, a conversation with oscar-winning director james cameron on the release of his new film "avatar." despite the $500 million price tag, early buzz is that he is on the verge of a major hollywood blockbuster. earlier this week, it was nominated for four golden globe awards. we're glad you have joined us. the conversation with james cameron coming up right now. >> there are so many things that walmart is looking forward to doing, like helping people live better. but mostly, we're helping build stronger communities and relationships. because with your help, the best is yet to come. >> nationwide insurance proudly supports "tavis smiley."
tavis and nationwide, working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> ♪ nationwide is on your side ♪ >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. tavis: please welcome james cameron to the program. at the oscar winning film maker is one of the most successful directors, writers, and producers of our time. films like "titanic," "terminator." "avatar" opens in theaters this
weekend. it is up for four golden globe awards. now, a sneak preview of "avatar ." >> they have an indigenous population of humanoids. there is a toxin that will stop your heart for one minute. and they have naturally recurring carbon fibers. they are very hard to kill. as head of security, it is my job to keep you alive. i will not succeed. not with all of you. if you wish to survive, you need to cultivate strong mental -- you have to obey the rules. paranoia rules. tavis: i heard you whisper, interesting clip. why did you say that?
>> it does not show the cg characters, it shows the back story. it sets up the world verbally. it was probably a good choice. tavis: let's keep moving. since you're the director, this comes out of your mind. "avatar" is? >> even when you have seen the film, people coming out are saying, i don't know what i just saw. [laughter] it is a big action-adventure movie that takes place on another planet. but it is more than that, because it also has a love story in it. some kind of deeply felt and emotional moments in the film. it has an environmental theme to it. without being preachy, but people will be able to relate to it these days.
tavis: when you have all of this bigness, the special effects, you have the opportunity to see this in 3d. how do you keep the bigness from overshadowing the story? >> that is the biggest challenge for this type of film, to not get so absorbed in the process that you do not pay attention to your actors. the funny thing i found was this performance capture stuff. it actually sort of takes all that away. there are no lights, no cameras, none of the normal stuff on a film set that would distract or keep you busy. i am working directly with the actors. we are always dealing with the heart of the movie every day. later, we work on the individual facts and fill and the scenes. tavis: u.s. started answer a bit
of what i wanted to ask a moment ago. you are not just known for being a good writer and producer and director, but an innovator. for those that are going to see this movie, in terms of innovation, what is james cameron did bring us -- gving us this -- giving us this time? >> is sort of a stylistic thing without looking you in the aisle the time. -- poking you any eye all the time. people say that they are for gettin -- forgetting they are wearing the glasses. another big innovation is the way that we get performance capture to drive them cg characters. you see these 10 foot tall blue
aliens. here you can see what we call jake's avatar, the creature he will protect his mind into. -- project his mind into. they are done with computer- generated imagery. tavis: tell me about the casting. casting is important in every film. in a film like this were so much of it is about aliens and that kind of thing, tell me about the unique role that casting plays a role -- in a film like this verses' "titanic." >> it is important to a small film, because that is all we see. but it is just important to a large film. this particular film, because we
are dealing with all of these strange ideas, we're taking you into this exotic world. i felt i needed somebody to play the main character, jake, played by sam worthington, who is just a very grounded person. a very real person. that is what sam is. he comes from a blue-collar background. i was a truck driver before was a film director. his approach acting is to find authenticity in every moment by whatever means necessary. putting him into this performance capture environment where there is not much to work with, he found ways to make it real. that helps you on this voyage to the exotic world. tavis: is it important for you and the audience -- at any point beyond the actress for putting sigourney weaver in another
science fiction picture? >> we have been friends since "aliens" in 1986. this turned out to be a really good role for her. there is irony in the sense that she was the human hero against the aliens in the other film, and in this film, humans are the invaders. the story is kind of told from the other side. in a sense, she is one of the invaders. but she loves the people, the world of pandora. she means only to help them. still, she is on the wrong side. tavis: we will talk about the environmental theme in just of the set -- in just a second. i am sure that was deliberate. what is fascinating to me, in
this film, the humans are invading. to my mind, there are some interesting commentary that you allow us or force us to wrestle with about who we are as humans. how we treat the planet. how we treat other beings. >> that was deliberate, and it was one of the themes that i wanted to explore. there are obviously references to vietnam, iraq, american colonial period. we have a history, and not just america, the french, spanish, english, the portuguese -- invading and taking what we need. we force out indigenous cultures and sometimes wipe them out completely. we don't have truly indigenous cultures left in this world.
there are few in the amazon or in the new guinea. some of them are going extinct on a daily basis. i sort of extrapolate it even further, this idea of entitlement. we take what we need, and we don't give back. we have the start giving back. we have to start aggressively expecting -- accepting our responsibility. tavis: had to give the proper treatment to the issues that you have laid out? as a filmmaker, i assume you want us to marinate on some of these things beyond the theater experience. how do you do that without being preachy? >> it is a fine line. you have donto put holes spoonfs of sugar in there, people coming
out saying that they cried three times. having this emotional reaction. that is part of it. don't assume that you have to give people information. assume that they have got the information already. what we will give you is emotional reaction. we will take you on not just a physical journey through the world, but a mental journey where you wind up looking at things on their side, their deep respect for nature. that is what science fiction does so well. it can hold up a mirror without pushing specific buttons. you see what i mean? science fiction does not really predict the future. it is there to hold a mirror up to the present and a look at the human condition. sometimes from the outside.
tavis: you have been called crazy. >> [laughter] tavis: you have been called crazy for the risk that you take. if you're going to be an innovator or iconic on demand, you're putting yourself out there. the question is, why? why take the risk to be innovative and iconic? people talk about you, and whether the gamble was worth it. what about james cameron compels him to take that kind of risk? >> i am not a risk junky. i don't like jumping off buildings -- tavis: speaking of jumping, you said that making this movie was like jumping off a cliff and leading -- and knitting parachute on the way down.
>> there were a few times that got away from us, but we made a soft landing. for me, it is about curiosity. wanting to see what happens. if we do this, if we build this thing, what will happen? what can recreate? the films that got me excited when i was a teenager, there were images that i had not seen before. somebody had given me the moment of magic of transport, whether it was the harryhausen films, space odyssey, star wars, apocalypse now -- these kind divisions that i enjoyed in the movie theater. if you're going to do that, you have to take risks. it almost by definition, as you were saying. tavis: is it just about giving us, the viewer, the audience, a
different or better experience? does james cameron process that this is part of the legacy, the film legacy that you're going to leave? does it include exposing the audience to these kinds of things that they have not seen prior to us being here? >> if they can show you something that you have not seen before and enjoy it? with open " the abyss," there was this liquid metal character and so on. i saw how fascinated audiences were with that. even from a purely commercial business standpoint, people want to see something new. you saw it again with "jurassic park." i did not come back, but you saw it. -- did not film that, but peopel
le saw it. i formed a company with stan winston, who designed the dinosaurs for "jurassic park." we took the art of cg to the next level. after "titanic," i had written "avatar" already. t it seemed. he cg was not quite ready. -- it seemd thed the cg was not qutite ready. in 2005, we started filming. tavis: retrospectively, you gave up four years of your life actively of your lif.
what do you think? >> i think it was worth it. when i sit with an audience, it was definitely worth it. tavis: itgod 7 days -- it took god seven days, it took you 4 years. >> we had another team working on plans and the characters. -- lants and the characters. i surrounded myself with the most talented artists i could find. from that, it goes too literally over 1000 cg artists. tavis: i think about all of the issues that we were discussing earlier, the environment, human rights, those kind of things.
those issues that you care very deeply about -- all i can believe is the numbers that were told. $500 million to make this film? how do you respond to somebody saying that this is an obscene amount of money? how do you justify $500 million for the home -- the film? >> that number was arrived at incorrectly in their own laugh by "the new york times." they added that all the marketing and promotional sponsorships stuff. that is how they got to this inflated number. it is certainly in the top five, if you will. everyone of those dollars goes to a person. it doesn't get fed into a computer.
they are humans, artists, working with computers that do all of this. in the film crew, the actors, people making a living off of this. it is creating jobs and a time of an economic downturn. i do not feel bad about that at all. that is the case with all of my films. it is good for business, good for commerce. hollywood -- business is sort of retrenching to these big, milestone pictures. television, cable, and so on has carved away a lot of the smaller stuff. it is tough out to get an independent film made. tavis: it seemed like the studios were saying that they were not going to spend that kind of money on blockbusters. that was the direction of years ago. >> exactly, and they found out
-- these are the kind of movies that people want from hollywood. tavis: before you were a director, you were a truck driver. that was a long time ago. take me back to those truck driving days. >> i was a truck driver, a bus mechanic, i was a blue-collar guy. i was kind of happy. just driving a truck at a living in a house with my first wife. in the meantime, i was writing, drawing, painting, all of this stuff. the life of the mind, if you will. i never imagined i would be a filmmaker. i was more of a film fan reacting to movies. at some point, the switch got thrown. i said, i am going to go try to be a filmmaker. it seems so improbable, but it
happened. tavis: tell me about that turn, from truck driver to director. [laughter] how did that happen? >> a big catalyst for me was "star wars." i realized it was very much like the imagery i had been conducting in my own mind. because the film was so successful, i thought if this was the kind of thing that could be doing. because it was successful and spawned a lot of knockoffs, a lot of people wanted to make science fiction films. i started working on a film that was a knockoff of star wars, a very cheap knockoff. tavis: you start reading science fiction at about eight years old. everybody has their own, you know, things.
what was it about science fiction? >> i love the fantasy, the characters, the idea of a strange life forms and alien creatures. i like the idea of distant futures, things like that. in those days, we did not have dvd's and video games. my way of processing that was to draw. what i read and imagined, i would draw. i had boxes and drawers of all kinds of aliens, space ships -- i had been prepping for this movie since i was seven or eight years old. tavis: you have been writing, producing, directing. i want to understand how your mind works, how your process works. could you do the writing, producing, and not the
directing? or do you have to direct because you have to shape this? >> i have done both. i wrote "strange days" and produced it. i did the same thing on "point break." they were designed for other people to direct. i like to do that. but i do not have a voracious appetite for it. we work together really well as a team. i enjoy the process. from here on, i will focus on directing my own stuff. i don't have a lot of time. i have made six or seven films in 25 years. i do not know if i have another 25 years. i might have 15 years. i have to pick my project's fifth -- carefully and stay close. tavis: tell me more about that last point where you know -- i
am 45 now, and i have more days behind me that i have in front of me. how do you go about the process of making choices when you have got more in the rearview mirror that in front of you? >> for me, is what is going to excite me. i don't have some master plan. i don't even know what film i am going to make next. i want to do something that i am curious about, that i can learn from. here is an example of a life choice. when i finished "titanic," i wound up doing six deep ocean expeditions that yielded four documentary films over a five- year period. i cannot be running around in a zodiac boats and a 20 foot see what i and 80. -- in a 20-foot sea when i am 80
. they say maybe i got scared of competing with myself or stage fright after "titanic." that was not the case at all. i could do whatever i wanted at that point. i did not think that my directing career would go away. i think it was a good call. tavis: i think of a former guest on this show, you either have to have f-u money or an f-you attitude. james cameron -- i had to clean that up because my mom is watching, this is pbs after all. "avatar" is the one out now, directed by james cameron. that is our show tonight. catch me on the weekends for the radio podcast and pbs.org.
until then, good night from l.a. keep the faith. >> to become a hunter, you must choose your own, and he must choose you. >> when? ? [unintelligible] -- >> [unintelligible] >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley on pbs.org. tavis: 20 next time for the "flags of our fathers" author james bradley. >> there are so many things that walmart is looking forward to doing, like helping people live better. but mostly, we're helping build stronger communities and relationships. because with your help, the best is yet to come.